The Armenian rug of hope

Telegram & Gazette (Massachusetts)
June 13, 2014 Friday

The Armenian rug of hope

by Harry N. Mazadoorian,

Sometimes a meaningful symbol can bring about results not achievable
by millions of articulate and well-reasoned words. We have all seen
examples where large populations have been moved from lethargy into
action by a symbol such as a flag, a gesture or a picture.

One such symbol is a rug woven by orphan survivors of the Armenian
Genocide of 1915, many years ago.

This year marks the 99th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. More
than 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children perished from
deportations, death marches, starvation and outright murder at the
hands of the Ottoman Empire.

So great was the sympathy and outrage that a relief effort of
unparalleled proportions was undertaken in the United States. The
Americans providing humanitarian relief and support for the victims
were a virtual who’s who of American politics, arts, academia and
philanthropy, as well as ordinary citizens, all outraged by the

The Near East Foundation raised millions of dollars, the equivalent of
several billion today, for humanitarian relief. At the same time,
Danish relief workers, Swiss missionaries and people of goodwill from
all over the world rushed to create orphanages in Syria, Lebanon,
Greece, and elsewhere, providing lifesaving support to the young
orphans who survived, such as my mother and father.

Regrettably, the American outrage which followed the horrific genocide
waned in ensuing decades. Passage of time, shifting policies in the
Middle East and a growing reliance on the perceived strategic role of
the government of Turkey, successor to the Ottoman Empire, caused
indignation to melt into indifference.

Even efforts to have the United States Congress pass a symbolic
resolution recognizing and denouncing the genocide encountered
insurmountable resistance. Turkish opposition to congressional action
was strong.

Presidents, including President Obama, who pledged to recognize the
atrocities as genocide while on the campaign trail, abandoned the
pledge once elected for fear of offending a key ally in the Middle
East. Euphemisms and cleverly selected words replaced a forthright
recognition. The genocide was deftly sidestepped.

Some asked, did recognition of this genocide of so long ago, so far
away, of a people so little known, really make a difference? Meanwhile
genocide, brutality and killing continue throughout the world.

The “orphan rug” was painstakingly woven by Armenian orphans of the
Ghazir Orphanage in what is now Lebanon in gratitude for the
lifesaving humanitarian efforts of the United States during the
bleakest hours of the genocide.

The rug was presented to President Calvin Coolidge in 1925 and resides
in the White House today. Interestingly, the rug resided in
Northampton, Massachusetts for some time after the Coolidges left
Washington. Awareness of the rug heightened after the publication of a
marvelous book about the rug by Dr. Hagop Martin Deranian, who
practices in Worcester.

When the rug was requested for commemorative programs by Armenian
advocacy groups and by the Smithsonian Institution itself, the White
House declined the request, citing what appeared to be hollow
logistical and procedural reasons. Speculation was that sensitivity to
Turkish denial of the genocide was the real reason.

Organizations such as the Armenian Assembly, a Washington-based entity
promoting awareness of Armenian issues, and supportive members of
Congress, including Sen. Edward Markey, persisted in seeking release
of the rug.

Finally, at the end of April, the White House agreed to release the
rug for public display at some time in the future. This is encouraging
news and further details about when and where it will be displayed are
eagerly awaited.

Why has this single rug, this 90-year-old inanimate object, generated
such a passionate interest? What difference could its production or
non-production possibly make?

Clearly, the rug is only a symbol, but an extremely visible and
powerful one. It represents the spirit of those fragile orphans whose
resilience, faith and gratitude kept them going and which brought many
of them to this country — many to the Worcester area — to become proud
and productive Americans.

It serves as a precious and powerful emblem of respect and gratitude
to this country. Something which hapless survivors and waifs created
with their own hands — more than four million knots of appreciation.

It also symbolizes the potential for a long-overdue and much-needed
transformative healing following one of history’s darkest and most
tragic chapters.

The rug is part of American history representing this country’s
pivotal role, throughout its history, in supporting the persecuted and
oppressed all over the world. It belongs to all Americans.

Perhaps, after nearly 100 years, the display of this modest symbol
will play a role in curbing the brutality and killing which continues
throughout the world.

Harry N. Mazadoorian of Kensington, Connecticut is the son of
survivors of the Armenian Genocide, both of whom were relocated to
orphanages in the Near East, before coming to America where they
initially lived in Whitinsville. He is an attorney and a mediator and
is the Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Quinnipiac University Law
School Center on Dispute Resolution.